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‘There is a niche for longer, more thoughtful work.’ In conversation with this year’s Charles Taylor Prize nominees

The shortlist for this year's Charles Taylor Prize, one of Canada's most storied awards for non-fiction, offers an array of ambitious historical, environmental, political and biographical writing. But, in this age of brevity and wit, what is the future of long, serious projects like these? Finalists Charlotte Gray, Thomas King, J.B. MacKinnon, Graeme Smith and David Stouck tell Books editor Jared Bland about the state of their art.

One of the remarkable things about this year's shortlist is its variety. Which of the other books is most interesting to you, and why?

Charlotte Gray: I can honestly say that each of the other four books on the shortlist has its own appeal to me, as a historian, because each is an original approach to important histories – relations between First Nations and the rest of us in The Inconvenient Indian; changing attitudes to conservation in The Once and Future World; an account of Canada's war in Afghanistan that gets behind the headlines in The Dogs Are Eating Them Now; Arthur Erickson because it traces the growing urbanism of Canada in the 20th century. I find Canadian amnesia about the past deeply frustrating, so all these books, which cover parts of the jigsaw, interest me. We're constantly reminded that we live in an age of quick information and even quicker opinion. What are the biggest challenges facing long-form non-fiction as a form in this environment?

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Graeme Smith: If you only have time to read one of the books on the shortlist, I'd recommend J.B. MacKinnon's The Once and Future World. He offers a guided tour of the ancient landscapes of our lost worlds, the environments destroyed by humans across a great sweep of history. It's far more lyrical than any book you've read about the environment, and in some ways more hopeful: he explores the idea of "re-wilding," as a way of mitigating the damage.

Thomas King: For the past three months, I've either been on the road or doing the final edits on my new novel, The Back of the Turtle, so I haven't had a chance to read all the books on the shortlist. I have read Graeme Smith's The Dogs are Eating Them Now and appreciated the honesty and the clarity with which he writes. The next book on my table is J.B. MacKinnon's. I have a long-standing concern with the health of the world, and I'm curious to see what MacKinnon can tell me about the planet that is our home.

J.B. MacKinnon: A great thing about getting on a shortlist is that you end up reading your fellow nominees' books, which is as enlightening as it is inevitably intimidating. In this case, the book that I mostly deeply wish every Canadian would read is Thomas King's The Inconvenient Indian. I feel like I can't say one word about this book without failing to do it justice; it needs to be read in full. Let me just say that King has found a voice that is somehow both compassionate and uncompromising, exactly the language needed to discuss Indian-White (his terminology) relations.

We're constantly reminded that we live in an age of quick information and even quicker opinion. What are the biggest challenges facing long-form non-fiction in this environment?

Smith: Non-fiction hasn't escaped the chaos of the Internet age, but I disagree with the "quick information, quick opinion" theory of navigating the challenges. There is a niche for longer, more thoughtful work. There are readers like me, who sometimes ignore the click bait in our Twitter feeds and pay up for the New Yorker app so we can read magazine articles that took six months to research and edit – instead of being churned out in an hour by BuzzFeed interns. In fact, even BuzzFeed has noticed this market and recently launched a long-form section. I'm heartened to see things like Next Issue starting to connect revenue with the period of time that a reader lingers and reads – instead of promoting a frenzy of clicks. I love the fact that Vice has just launched its coverage of breaking news with a series of dispatches from Ukraine that would be considered way too long by most online video editors. People assume that the Internet has shortened attention spans, but that's wrong: digital has fragmented the audience, and my favourite segment is the group of people who are really interested in the world. Those are the people buying my book, and they will probably continue to buy all kinds of other non-fiction. That market won't disappear.

Gray: Twitter is like sugar – addictive and sickening. Long-form non-fiction is like a banquet – a succession of different dishes that together appeal to all the tastebuds. The biggest challenges for non-fiction writers in Canada are learning and practising the craft: Many of the magazines that used to publish it, such as Saturday Night, have disappeared, so non-fiction writers don't have the chance to learn from great editors how to construct the banquet – ledes, angles, thesis, colour. And for too many aspiring writers, "non-fiction" seems to mean "writing about me." That being said, the number of non-fiction books being published in North America rises every year. So the appetite is still out there.

King: I can't say I understand the digital age, and I suspect that neither does anyone else, for that matter, since the innovations and the variations appear to be occurring at exponential speeds. The Internet, for example, has created its own language, a combination of letters and symbols that has taken the place of words and phrases, a digital shorthand, if you will. My main worry is that this sort of reduction or streamlining may overtake long-form non-fiction and that the genre may be re-crafted to accommodate the new insistence on speed and the simplification of knowledge. Exactly what this will do to research and public discussion remains to be seen, but one has to wonder if the current political attitude in Canada that ignores knowledge and science, destroys public records and relies on simple, unsupportable answers to complex issues is, in part, an unintended consequence of our love for convenient and comfortable technologies.

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David Stouck: I think biography is perhaps the least challenged of non-fiction forms in the quick information age, because the audience keen for a particular life story wants to know as many details as possible. The fact that People magazine thrives along with the Internet suggests to me that biography will hold its own.

MacKinnon: I feel like long-form non-fiction is emerging as an antidote to the broad but shallow stream of information reaching us today. I feel privileged as a writer in that I get to sit and contemplate, I get to go deep. To me, the question is whether or not that act of contemplation, of mulling things over, will continue to be seen as valuable to a large enough cross-section of the population. I see a real possibility that thoughtful writing will become something like Slow Food – esteemed by a small minority, but almost totally divorced from the mainstream. Already, a few readers have denounced The Once and Future World for its lack of sound-biteable qualities, for being meditative rather than prescriptive.

What were the particular difficulties of writing your nominated book?

Gray: I wanted to write about what it was like to live in Canada during the First World War, and I wanted to see it from the point of view from someone who was powerless. I knew that true crime would make a great vehicle in which to tell that story, and that court documents and newspaper coverage would supply information. When Carrie Davies, the 18-year-old domestic, pulled the trigger and killed her boss, she opened the door for me into her life, her world and the Massey family. But I was constantly scrambling to come to grips with Carrie herself, because (unlike other people I have written about) she left no diaries or letters. That's the nature of servants: They are everywhere and nowhere in depictions of the past – except, of course, when they are hopelessly romanticized in fictions such as Downton Abbey.

King: The Inconvenient Indian was a difficult book to write for three reasons. One, even though I had studied Native history at university and then had taught it for over 30 years, there was a great deal of research that had to be done, much of which never made it into the book. Two, the material itself wasn't enough. Much of it was factual but dry, and I had to figure a way to put the story of Native people in North American into a coherent and readable form. In the end, I used some of the strategies that I had learned writing fiction. And three, because I lived through some of this history, was a part of this history, writing the book conjured up old memories and opened up old wounds. That part was quite difficult and unpleasant. In the end, it took me over seven years to complete the project, and there were a number of points in the process where I was ready to give it up and quit.

Smith: Promoting this book has been emotionally draining and a little bit embarrassing because I always get asked about the "hardest," or "most dangerous" or "most traumatizing" aspect of my years in the war. It's a natural question, but it's hard to pick out the particular difficulties. Afghanistan is a war zone: a difficult place to work. One of the things I love about my current job, as a senior analyst for the International Crisis Group, is that I give briefings to government officials and other people who never ask about the difficulties of my research. They want my analysis, full stop. This reminds me of Leonard Cohen's How To Speak Poetry, advising poets to imagine that they are giving a report to the National Geographic Society: "These people know all the risks of mountain climbing. They honour you by taking this for granted."

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MacKinnon: In terms of the writing process, the biggest challenge was taking a mountain of disparate research and synthesizing it into a slim and hopefully readable book. A more unusual problem was that much of the final writing and editing was done during an annus horribilis, a year of plain old bad news and bad luck. It all culminated in a two-week period in which my mother ended up in critical care, my grandmother died, and my father died. Things improved from there, but then, how could they not?

Stouck: The chief problem for me was length. [Publisher] Scott McIntyre was enthusiastic about the project from the outset, but when I had finished the first draft, he made it clear that the book had to be 40,000 words shorter. Erickson had lived a big life with his travels, his theories of architecture, his master buildings and his Hollywood life style, but gone was the era of the blockbuster biography or even the story told in two volumes. Barbara Pulling, one of this country's distinguished editors, helped me remove a lot of words, but inevitably, for me, the book has some ghosts and orphaned references.

Several of the titles nominated for the Charles Taylor Prize have also been nominated (and, in two cases, won) other major non-fiction prizes this season. Are we at a saturation point in our prize culture? Or can they still create a signal amidst the noise?

Gray: In a book world where publishers are folding, advances are shrinking, and writers are scrambling to make a living, I would never suggest that prizes and awards should be throttled back. They bring much-needed glamour, publicity and cash into a threadbare business. I am happy that there are now longlists as well as shortlists, since these increase the number of books that receive a whiff of recognition. And some books are just so good that they deserve lots of accolades.

King: I'm not sure what you mean by a "saturation point." In Canada, there are only about four main prizes for non-fiction. I don't think that's saturation. Most writers, even good ones, can't make a living from their art. In that regard, the prizes are welcome as many of these prizes represent a year's salary. Personally, I'd like to see a few more prizes in non-fiction and fiction. If we can give billions of dollars of public money to private enterprise as outright gifts, I don't think supporting literature through such awards is a bad idea.

Stouck: The prizes do still make "a noise," and I think they are more important than ever, given the diminished number of book reviews today. Arthur Erickson is a case in point. It was released at the beginning of last September but until the RBC Taylor Prize longlist was announced in December, the only notice was a short piece in Maclean's. Subsequently the only newspaper review has been a piece in the Star, and still nothing in British Columbia. This is completely different from the reception of my last book eight years ago. This time it is the "prize culture" that is making the general public aware of the book.

MacKinnon: There is no perfect system for prizes. A single great annual award – Here Be the Best Book – would be clarifying for readers, but would also give disproportionate attention to a single book. Multiple prizes are harder for readers to follow, but reward more authors and better represent literary diversity. I get the sense that most writers are like me: we're happy to be shortlisted for awards, and we're happy to win them – but we would be happier still if there were no awards at all.

The winner of the $25,000 RBC Charles Taylor Prize will be announced in Toronto on Monday, March 10. These interviews have been condensed and edited.

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